In June 2009, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev signed a 300-page document detailing a 10-year strategic partnership.
Yet when Russian Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs Sergey Shoygu and Sergey Lavrov visited Egypt in mid-November, local media portrayed the news as an exceptional event at a critical time of unstable relations with some Western forces, in particular the US.
This led many to recall the heyday of Egyptian-Russian relations in the 1960s, during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, as a form of defiance of Western powers.
Egypt’s diplomatic relations with the US and European Union became tense following the July 3 military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and the ensuing violent dispersal of sit-ins demanding his reinstatement. Four F16 aircraft, part of the US annual aid package, has been withheld, while Congress is revisiting all laws relevant to US aid to Egypt. At the same time, Russian officials made statements of support to Egypt.
Observers believe that asserting the existence of an Egyptian-Russian military and diplomatic bond, which implies that Egypt is turning its back on the US, is not in the country’s best interest at this point.
But there is more to the rapprochement than the media discourse of Egypt countering the US through partnering with Russia.
“I can’t figure out the reasons for the exaggerated media hype over this visit, as it’s merely a step within the 2009 agreement. Why do some people insist that it means Egypt has abandoned alliances and dependency on Western forces and returned to the Eastern side?” asks Norhan al-Sheikh, political science professor at Cairo University and an expert on Egyptian-Russian relations.
“This could have been possible had we been living during the Cold War, but Russia and the US have important strategic relations now as well. In the end, Egyptian diplomats are trying to continue what they have already started.”
Moreover, it is inconceivable that US-Egypt relations, deemed a natural bond for some, to be simplistically replaced by Russia.
“It might seem like Egypt and Russia are taking advantage of the United States’ shaking grip over the Middle East, but truthfully, it’s impossible to say that Russia could be Egypt’s main supplier of weapon as the negotiated amount is insignificant in comparison to that granted by the US,” says North Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group, Issandr El Amrani.
Local news outlets suggested that Russia may provide Egypt with the MAG-29 aircraft (which is comparable to the F16) and some defense missiles. Russia has not offered military support to Egypt in over a decade, reported Reuters and Al-Jazeera.
Ever since the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt has received military and financial aid from the US that totals $1.3billion yearly. It comes in the shape of weaponry, airplanes, spare parts and technical training in US war colleges.
The US military has achieved tight control over the supplying of weapons to the Egyptian army. Almost 75 percent of Egyptian airplanes are American F16s, as well as 2.800 M1 and M6 American tanks, all contributing to the larger share of Egyptian defense weapons and air force equipment.
“A more accurate description would be that Egypt is sending a warning to its original ally that other cards could be played to push toward the resumption of military aid,” Amrani says.
The US seems to have taken the hint. During a statement on Egypt on November 3, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that “the Egyptian Armed Forces are contributing to the return of democracy to Egypt once again.” On his most recent visit to Cairo in early November, Kerry also said that the suspension of aid is a temporary measure and its resumption depends on progress toward democracy.
But Kerry is the only US official who has not mentioned Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in months, and his statements were said to be lacking in coordination with others in the US administration.
Amrani explains that Egypt-US relations depend on three points: a mutual desire to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, Gulf security, and intelligence cooperation.
“If they remain in agreement over these points, the relationship will not be affected. In the end, all this factors into the Egyptian decision-making process and choosing alliances,” he says. “We still have a lot of time to judge the tenacity and resilience of the future of Egyptian-Russian relations.”
On a larger scale, some analysts are speculating about Russia’s desire to play a more effective role in the Middle East. As it is an influential player in both the Syrian crisis and Iranian nuclear talks, playing a prominent role in Egypt may be a natural progression.
Bessma Momani, an associate professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, subscribes to the thought that the Russian approach toward Egypt and the Middle East in general stems from a desire to gain international recognition for its role in the region.
“Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has been a rule-taker in the global security system and it wants to regain its glory days of being a superpower, but truth is they are nowhere near the position they once held. Indeed, beyond its rhetoric on the global stage and its valuable veto on the UN Security Council, Russians are nothing more than a middle power,” she says.
Momani suggests that Russians enjoy dealing with authoritarian or military-backed regimes such as Egypt’s because it reminds them of their own government. “They are least comfortable with democracies, where political currents change quickly sometimes,” she says.
Amrani also sees a Russian need for support in the region with regard to Syria.
“Russia is interested in finding regional allies that will support or at least accept its position on the Syria conflict and generally expanding its diplomatic cloud in the region,” he says.
Egyptian-Russian relations had previously soured after Morsi proclaimed his support for the Syrian opposition and the severance of diplomatic relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This stance changed dramatically following Morsi’s overthrow. Signs from the Egyptian state currently indicate neutrality toward the crisis, but also support of political reconciliation.
The Syrian crisis aside, Amrani believes that because Russia has been fighting a Muslim insurgency in its own territory for two decades, has a large Muslim minority, and borders many Muslim-majority countries, it has an interest in good relations with the Islamic world and in preventing international networks of support for its own Islamists from opening.
It remains to be seen what the current rapprochement between the two countries will produce in the longer term.